“Who are the Saints?”

All Saints Day – 11/6/2022 This sermon has been transcribed from a live video. To view a video of this sermon, please click here.

I speak to you today as a sinner to sinners, as the beloved of God to God’s beloved, as one called to bear witness to those called to bear witness. Amen.

Yesterday I went to lunch with my wife Claire and with Pastor Manisha and with Chas Kipp. We had just finished a funeral and we decided to get some breakfast. There was this moment where I suddenly had some kind of bizarre insight. Pastor Manisha said that she was really tired of everything that she had learned in seminary, that she realized that it did not help her contend with everything that she was dealing with today as a pastor. And I am very suggestive. And so as soon as she said that, I was like, you’re right. I didn’t learn anything either. I feel totally ill-equipped for what we’re dealing with today. 

And of course this is a little bit larger crisis for me because I spent about 20 years of my life as a professor and spent some time studying religion, and I was racking my mind as to what was that one thought that I could muster at lunch that would show that the years had not been wasted. And I suddenly stumbled upon this lecture I heard from Richard Reinhold Niebuhr, who was a professor at Harvard University and the son of Richard Niebuhr, who had been a professor at Yale University, and whose uncle was Reinhold Niebuhr, who was the great social commentator of the 20th century. 

And Richard Niebuhr liked to give lectures where he asked questions and then backed away and watched the fireworks happen in your mind, and the question that he asked in this one lecture was this. He asked two questions, actually. He said, the question that we struggled with in the 20th century was, what is love? And that was in part because love was seen as the answer to our problems. From the beginning of the 20th century, love in all of its forms, whether passion or pleasure or pain or self-sacrifice. Whether it is defined as unconditional love for another, whether we invoke it on the role that it plays in informing our work in civil rights and creating some kind of community, the question of the 20th century was, what is love?

And then he said, in the 21st century, the question is and will be who are the saints? And when I heard this, I didn’t quite know how to manage it, but I have come to see that question as prescient, as incredibly perceptive. Because the question “who are the saints” is one that has become difficult for us to determine. Increasingly over the past few years because there is no person that I know that has become an exemplar, that has not also been shown at some point to be all too human. 

Most recently, if you read the sports pages, as I occasionally do, you see the whole calamity that has been found because Tom Brady and his wife Gisele have gotten a divorce. I was immediately thinking about the whole importance of having these exemplars who are sports figures, who we look up to, and I was brought to a moment in which I was a professor at Sewanee. And one of the staff members who had survived cancer because he focused on the bicyclist, Lance Armstrong, came to me and said he was devastated when he learned that Lance Armstrong, his hero, his saint, had engaged in using performance enhancing drugs. Lance Armstrong had helped him get through cancer, and he discovered that he was all too human. 

And of course, that disillusionment happened in a way that has echoed throughout almost everything in society. Who are the saints? We all know too much about each other these days for any of us to stand on a pedestal and not expect it to be knocked out from underneath us. Who are the saints? That is the question of the 21st century. And to answer it, we have to make sure that we understand the theology of sainthood that should inform us. 

In the Roman Catholic Church, to be a saint is to be a morally and spiritually heroic person whose influence is felt not only in their life, but in the life they have with God. And there is a careful plan and process for how someone becomes a saint in the Roman Catholic tradition. Someone has to make an application to the local bishop, and then there’s a kind of spiritual audit that happens, and then you get to move to the next level, and you’re called venerable. And then after you’re called venerable, people wait to see if there is a miracle that could be tested by doctors to see if that miracle is real. And then if you get that miracle and it’s attributed to you, then you’re given a kind of intermediary state. And then finally when you have two miracles, you then can somehow be considered a saint. 

I don’t believe that. And for me and for the Anglican tradition, we do not believe that saints are morally heroic and perfect because a saint is not someone you pray to in our tradition. A saint is not someone who has never stumbled in our tradition. Rather, a saint is someone who has borne witness in their lives, to the power of God working through them. And most often that is a power that is revealed in the midst of great weakness. To be a saint is to be a witness, an all-too-human witness to the power of God working through you in unexpected ways.

You’ve heard the axiom that every saint has a past and every sinner has a future. Experiences taught me that that relationship between saint and sinner is quite porous, that many of us who witness powerfully to God working through us, have a past that still is very much present in their lives. And many of us who would count ourselves as sinners have already working in us some qualities and some beautiful character traits that mean that we are more than just the bad things that happen to us or the bad things we do. To be a saint is not to transcend being a sinner, but to be a saint is to be a kind of witness to the power of God that is greater than anything we can ask or imagine.

We see that in all of our readings today in our reading from Daniel. You have this moment in which the prophet is called to speak into existence, a disturbing revelation of God about wars and rumors of wars. And you see it again in our reading from Ephesians where Paul is literally speaking about the saints and he’s offering a kind of prayer to them, hoping that they would know the riches of God’s grace and the power of God in their lives. Paul knows all too well that he never transcends that weakness that is inside of him, that sin that is part of him. He always knows that his life as a witness is to God’s immeasurable grace, not to his rectitude. 

And in our reading today from the Gospel of Luke, Jesus can be seen in some ways of speaking in a way that can seem to divide the world into sheep and goats and saints and sinner. But I want to suggest to you that Jesus is addressing a single audience that is mixed and people who have known both hunger and fullness and happiness and sadness. And when Jesus says, woe, what we need to understand is that that is not meant to be a word that shames anybody and says, this person is not a good person, or that you are not a good person. If you interpret woe that way, get it out of your mind. It’s not what the scriptures are saying. But when Jesus uses the word woe, He is saying to the person that has ears to listen that the direction of their life is leading to a dead end. 

If you focus only on being full, you are focusing on a dead end. If you focus only on being joyful, you’re focusing on a dead end. If you’re focusing only on the approval that others might have for you, you are focusing on a dead end. That life will live and die in frustration. But Jesus wants those saints hearing His words to focus on being blessed. And to be blessed in the scriptures, as Walter Bergman tells us, is to be full of possibility and new life. To enter into a new world, to find new space for grace. 

Who are the saints? This morning I found myself giving thanks to God for every saint I’ve met at Christ Church Cranbrook. And I thanked God for the people who have done me a service of some kind or helped me in some way, who’ve led me in some ways, who’ve lifted me up when I needed it to help me do everything I need to do, to do what I do here. And then I found myself  giving thanks to God for everybody who complained to me, everybody who criticized me, everybody who kind of tried to bully me a little bit by talking to other people and saying to me, “People say,” because they have done me a service as well. And oftentimes the person who praises me and the person who criticizes me turns out to be the same person.

That is the nature of Christian community. We are all saints in the making and God is not finished with any of us. And the work we do on All Saints Day is we give thanks for that witness. Who are the saints? Think about the people who have surrounded you here, who have lifted you up and maybe forced you to draw closer to God. Think about the people in your lives who though very imperfect, somehow found a way to share with you something of incredible value. Your spiritual life depends on All Saints Day and being able to receive the gifts that these broken people give you, the witness they share of the God who brings life out of death in Jesus Christ.

And as we focus today on those who have died in our midst, saints, all of them, we give thanks to God for their witness, and we ask God’s blessing as we explore new possibilities for being Christ’s disciples now and always.